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Executive Summary

Due to the military invasion by Turkey in July and August 1974, the Republic of Cyprus has been de facto divided into two separate areas: the southern area under the Government of Cyprus, which is recognized as the only legitimate government; and the northern area, amounting to approximately 36 percent of the territory, under the non-recognized, illegal, and unilaterally declared “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”). As documented, the northern part of Cyprus has experienced a vast destruction and pillage of religious sites and objects during the armed conflict and continuing occupation. In addition, a large number of religious and archaeological objects have been illegally exported and subsequently sold in art markets. The Republic of Cyprus has asserted its ownership over its religious and archaeological sites located in Cyprus through use of its domestic legislation. The Cyprus government and the Church of Cyprus claim that such religious sites constitute part of Cyprus’ cultural property and are of paramount importance to the collective history and memory of the people of Cyprus as a nation, as well as to humankind. In a few instances, Cyprus, either through diplomatic channels or through legal action, has been successful in repatriating religious and archaeological objects.

Protection of religious sites and other cultural property during armed conflict and occupation falls within the ambit of international humanitarian law, otherwise known as the law of war. The basic principle is that cultural property must be safeguarded and protected, subject to military necessity only when such property has been converted to a military objective. Pursuant to the major international agreement on this subject, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property During Armed Conflict and its Protocols, as well as the legal regime on occupation, Turkey, as a state party, is required to refrain from acts of hostility and damage against cultural property located in the northern part of Cyprus; to prohibit and prevent theft, pillage, or misappropriation of cultural property; and to establish criminal jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who engage in acts of destruction, desecration, and pillage. Archaeological excavations in the occupied northern part of Cyprus are prohibited unless they are critical to the preservation of cultural property; in such a case, excavations must be carried out with the cooperation of the national competent authorities of the occupied territory. Such violations of conventional and customary international rules on the protection of cultural property may give rise to legal responsibility on the part of Turkey as the occupying power before an international court or tribunal, provided that other requirements are met. A legal precedent for the responsibility of Turkey for actions against cultural property would be the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. The Court, based on the “effective control” test, used in Loizidou v. Turkey, found Turkey responsible for deprivation of private property of Greek-Cypriots expelled from the occupied northern part of Cyprus.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) consider the destruction of cultural property to be a war crime. The ICTY has held individuals accountable for the destruction or damage done to institutions dedicated to religious, artistic, scientific, or historic monuments. Moreover, the ICTY has reaffirmed that the rules on protection of cultural property during armed conflict have achieved the status of customary international law; thus, they are binding erga omnes, against all states, even if a state is not party to an international humanitarian law instrument.

Two international Conventions governing protection of cultural property apply to the issue of illicit traffic and exportation of cultural property from the northern part of Cyprus: a) the 1970 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; and b) the 1995 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. A basic objective of both Conventions is to fight the illicit trade in art and cultural property. Under the 1970 Convention, which has been ratified by Cyprus and Turkey, parties are required to take steps to prevent illicit traffic through the adoption of legal and administrative measures and the adoption of an export certificate for any cultural object that is exported. Cyprus has complied with these requirements. In addition, the 1970 Convention regards as “illicit” any export or transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion that arises from the occupation of a country by a foreign power. The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention establishes uniform rules for restitution claims by individuals regarding stolen cultural objects and return claims by states regarding illicitly exported cultural objects. While Cyprus has ratified the Convention, Turkey has not.

The Cyprus Government stresses that the optimum way to preserve and protect its cultural property is to find a solution to the Cyprus issue and the end of the military occupation of the northern part of Cyprus. Meanwhile, Cyprus may opt, inter alia, to utilize judicial remedies to resolve outstanding disputes pertaining to its cultural and religious property either before foreign courts, as it has already done, or international and regional courts, provided that other criteria are met.

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Last Updated: 06/09/2015